After decades of neglect and some pretty naff spin-offs, Crash Bandicoot is back for a brand new adventure. The huge success of the remastered trilogy and Crash Team Racing may have been a surprise to some, but it was clearly enough to get Activision interested in putting their marsupial back in action.
Those coming from the N.Sane Trilogy will feel right at home. The game features the same bright and colourful cartoon style that the series is known for, and cutscenes are nice and polished. That said, compared to rival platformers like Ratchet & Clank on PS4, I feel Crash 4’s style can look a little long in the tooth. Obviously part of this is a matter of style but, given some of the ways this new game takes influences from Insomniac’s platformer, the contrast was pretty clear.
One of the new additions here is a myriad of character skins, so that Crash and Coco can be dressed up how you wish. These skins aren’t just given away, though; instead being unlocked through some of the most demanding challenges the game has to offer – there’s no sign of microtransactions here. I spent much of my playthrough with Crash dressed up as a chicken (the punnily named mother-clucker skin) and with Coco in a futuristic Tron-style outfit.
Regardless of how you look, Crash 4 is classic Crash through and through. While most levels are fiendishly well-designed, some feel like I’ve played them before. Regular series diversions and annoyances like the jetbike, polar bear racing levels, and into the screen chases are all present and correct. This is obviously a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for Toys for Bob. They’re giving fans exactly what they want, but it does have the unfortunate effect of making Crash 4 feel more like a lost PS1 title at times, rather than a current gen game.
This isn’t to say that Crash 4 is without new ideas, though. The addition of more player characters with distinct skillsets and storylines is hugely welcome, even if they are set in their own levels rather than being available in the main path. The new characters are all iconic series favourites, with Dr Cortex, Crash’s absent girlfriend Tawna, and er… Dingodile all featuring. Once you meet these characters in the story you unlock their own timelines, a series of specific levels that fill in their backstory and show where they interact with Crash and Coco. This is a lovely touch and gives an extra perspective on the story.
The only drawback is that I was thrown by the game mechanics of all of these. Cortex is hugely frustrating as he has a short and single jump rather than the one that you’ll have spent hours training your muscle memory to pull off with Crash. The compulsory levels featuring him were a real headache as I had to retrain my reactions. Tawna’s hookshot is more successfully integrated, and Dingodile’s vacuum cannon is a very different beast to master.
They add a great deal of variety, but their contrasting skillsets also mean that their levels have been built to specifically cater to each one’s style of play. Levels start to feel like a platforming puzzle that can only be completed in one optimum way, as opposed to a more organic environment were they able to share levels. The corridor-like structure is in clear use throughout, the game with levels feeling as if they are on rails – sometimes literally. The multiple characters and introduction of rail-grinding feel like this is Crash updated via Sonic Adventure.
The epic storyline takes in almost all of Crash’s big bosses, from Cortex to N-Tropy, although clearing each set of levels is pretty quick. This is misleading, as there are massive skill roadblocks in stages which will take patience and dexterity to overcome. Toys for Bob have certainly kept the trademark difficulty of earlier games here – this isn’t a dumbed down version by any means. The one concession to modern tastes is the option to remove limited lives, instead letting you respawn from the last checkpoint indefinitely. This was hugely welcome in a couple of levels, with the penultimate one in particular seeing me rack up a whopping 106 deaths! Is Crash 4 a masocore platformer?
Alongside the usual jumping and spinning, you are helped out by a new set of masks that provide special abilities. As you work through the game, you’ll unlock a dimensional mask that reveals (and conceals) hidden platforms and objects, one that enables you to travel great distances, one that slows down time, and one that inverts gravity. These are used at specific points through the game and manage to add some much needed innovation to the level design – although that penultimate level is an absolutely nightmarish combination of all of them.
The powers also come in handy for the bonus levels in each stage, which follow the pattern of earlier titles by being puzzles where you have to smash every crate and make your way out. Grander versions of these levels are unlocked through collecting the videotapes scattered through the levels too, although you’ll have to reach them without dying to be able to pick them up. When you add the usual gems for successfully smashing all crates, dying no more than 3 times, and hidden gems in many stages, you can see that you’ll be replaying these levels until they haunt your dreams.
I haven’t even mentioned the terrifying inverted versions of every level that you unlock where the colour pallete is replaced with dark blue, red, and yellow whilst a freaky reversed version of the music plays. Each of these also has the same number of gems to unlock. Oh, and finally, you have the super secret hidden colour gems that unlock the game’s true ending. Phew – I’m knackered just typing that all out!